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Article published Sunday, October 15, 2006
Fascinating path to a conviction
Book is an evocative report on the trial of a priest for murdering a nun
Photo
Sin, Shame & Secrets chronicles the events leading up to the 2006 imprisonment of the Rev. Gerald Robinson, 68, a Toledo Roman Catholic priest currently serving 15 years to life for the 1980 murder of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl.
( THE BLADE )

SIN, SHAME & SECRETS. By David Yonke. Continuum. 240 pages. $26.95.
A joke in the publishing industry has it that three ingredients for a bestseller are royalty, sex, and the Church. Which means a sure-fire opening line is "•'Get your hand off my knee!' said the queen to the archbishop."

The subtitle to Blade religion editor David Yonke's evocative Sin, Shame & Secrets is: "The Murder of a Nun, the Arrest of a Priest and Cover-up in the Catholic Church." Is that sure-fire or what?

Sin, Shame & Secrets chronicles the events leading up to the 2006 imprisonment of the Rev. Gerald Robinson, 68, a Toledo Roman Catholic priest currently serving 15 years to life for the 1980 murder of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl.

The nun was killed, in what was described as a ritualistic slaying, on the day before Easter Sunday. Her body was found in the sacristy of the chapel of Mercy Hospital, and suspicion focused on Father Robinson, one of Mercy's two chaplains.

MULTIMEDIA
• View David Yonke speaking about Sin, Shame & Secrets

And here the waters get very murky.

One might be led to assume that the "Cover-up in the Catholic Church" was responsible, at least partly, for the fact that it took more than 20 years for some facets of the case to be brought to light.

There is a deputy police chief who happens to be Catholic and does not seem interested in taking a closer look at Father Robinson as a suspect, who indeed seems to stymie his department's investigation. There is the Toledo Roman Catholic Diocese, which stonewalls when it comes to releasing information about Father Robinson. There is at least one "witness," who when questioned, answers only minimally, rather than volunteering information later seen as relevant, because after all, who could suspect a priest of committing murder - especially of a nun and in such a scandalous fashion.

But there is also a miasma of horror, disgust, and doubt, the result of accusations of priestly pedophilia and satanic sex, torture, and slayings (strong stomach needed for reading) that continued to surface until a cesspool overflowed, and the diocese, the Church, and the Toledo and Lucas County law enforcement agencies were forced to listen - and to act.

The Church was compelled to acknowledge events it had avoided. The diocese paid almost $2 million in damages to those who claimed sexual abuse by Catholic priests, and members of law enforcement agencies, some of whom recalled all too well the open wound of Sr. Margaret Ann's unsolved murder, recognized a pattern and, armed with ex-post-facto forensic tools, reopened the cold-case file.

It is obvious from reading Sin, Shame & Secrets that Yonke followed events closely. Almost too obvious: The earlier part of the book would have moved faster and been easier reading without redundancies, extraneous matter (do we really need to know the phone number that a police detective dialed?) and groundless extrapolations. (How did the author know that the killer's mind "was a dull roar, like a freight train was roaring through it" or that the killer was "whispering in Latin" as he repeatedly stabbed the nun?)

But eventually, one is carried along by events. And where one might consider the accounts of satanic cultism as irrelevant and mere sensationalism, it is obvious that not only did the accusations of priestly involvement in sadomasochistic actions have a bearing on events, but it is clear that rumors generated an atmosphere that lent itself not only to titillation but even, some might say, to a sort of lynch-mob mentality.

The trial seems to have left several questions - such as the motive for the killing - unanswered. But, as one of the assistant prosecutors said, "the state did not have to prove a motive … just that Father Robinson had committed the crime." Testimony was given by enough top forensics experts to satisfy the most rabid fans of CSI and Cold Case.

The defense raised some points about reasonable doubt, which there might have been. DNA found on the nun's body was not Father Robinson's. Whose was it? And what of the dark-complexioned man seen in the hospital corridor that morning? Was he ever found or his presence explained?

Objectively, had Father Robinson been arrested and tried at the time of the murder, odds are - and, according to the book, the assistant prosecutor said as much - that he would have been acquitted. However, a German proverb says that God's mill goes slowly, but it grinds fine: The jury took only six hours to find the priest guilty.

With the publication of Sin, Shame & Secrets, and bearing in mind the legendary news media byword "If it bleeds it leads," movie and TV miniseries are sure to follow.

Oh, and by the way, a heroic, dedicated missionary nun in Africa was killed in a recent outbreak of Islamic anti-Catholicism. Will a book be written about her life and death? Probably not: no sex or satanic rituals involved.

Javan Kienzle is the author of "Judged by Love," the biography of former Detroit priest William X. Kienzle, author of "The Rosary Murders."

 RECENT RELATED ARTICLES

• Robinson abuse suit's dismissal to be appealed | 01/19/2007
• Civil suit against Robinson dismissed | 01/18/2007
• Robinson is returned to Nelsonville prison | 01/04/2007
• Robinson moved to prison hospital | 12/20/2006
• Priest convicted in nun’s murder hospitalized | 12/19/2006

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